In tiny Coupeville, tourists have returned. Workers have not.
Now that so many people are vaccinated, tourists are flooding into the Pacific Northwest again. That’s especially true in the tiny town of Coupeville, Wash., on Whidbey Island.
But there’s a problem. Coupeville can’t hire enough people to staff the restaurants and shops where tourists spend their money. And the tourists have picked up on it.
Front Street is a well preserved, old fashioned street on Coupeville’s waterfront, with an ice cream parlor and knickknack shops. The 1998 film Practical Magic was filmed here. People still talk about it. A couple of shops sell memorabilia related to the film.
Something else tourists are talking about this year is the labor shortage.
“Up and down the Sound, every place we go to is short staffed. And particularly for restaurants," said a man named Lloyd, visiting Coupeville from Edmonds, Washington.
“We were here yesterday, but by the time we made it, everything was closed. You guys close earlier than we’re used to in Illinois and Florida," lamented tourist Marie Mucciante.
Businesses that can’t staff up are limiting hours and leaving money on the table.
Every year, when the tourist season heats up, stores and restaurants in Coupeville begin a frenzy of hiring. This year, the hunger is especially strong. Tourists are ready to spend after skipping their vacations last year. And many businesses are in rebuilding-mode after cutting to the bone to get through the pandemic.
At Harbor Gifts and Art Gallery, owner Long Bechard has a lead on a new employee.
“I have one person in mind, and I think I’m gonna hire her," said Bechard. "She works part time elsewhere, three days a week. I said 'You can help me two or three days a week over here.' She said 'OK.'”
Down at the Kingfisher Bookstore, Meg Olson snagged her guy, Felix. He started just yesterday. Olson feels lucky to have him.
“I was pursuing him last summer, and he turned me down. And then he quit his job, and I was like… zzzz…" Olson said while doing an impression of reeling in a fish. She jerked on her imaginary fishing pole and said “Got him.”
Typically, jobs here get filled by word of mouth. Employees come from Coupeville, or from Oak Harbor, a much larger town about 20 minutes north.
But this year, for a lot of businesses, the old approach is just not working.
Darlene Beck runs the Coupeville Inn, just off Front Street. “Usually, by this time, I would have a stack of applications of people looking for summer work. The kids," Beck said. Lots of college students, home for the summer.
After a very slow year, the hotel rooms are now filling up with wedding parties, a film crew, visiting doctors, even visiting judges for a local horse show. But even after putting up a sign and taking out ads, Beck can’t fill her job vacancies.
“We’re not getting anything," she said. "We’re not getting any calls, and we’ve had stuff out all over the place. Everybody in town knows. But everybody in town is looking for people.”
So she and another staff member have been putting in extra hours. Still, they’ve had to limit the hours the front desk is open.
“For me, it’s scary," she said. "Because we’re coming into our busy season.”
Down the street at Toby’s Tavern, business has been better than it was even before the pandemic. Yet on the Wednesday I visited, the restaurant was closed due to lack of staff.
“It’s painful for us,” said John Rodriguey, the tavern's owner.
"For the first time in 32 years of owning this place, I’m closing one day a week," he said. "Usually, we close one day a year ... it’s odd how spooky it feels, that we have this day when there are no customers in.”
Rodriguey managed to attract one employee after raising his starting wage to $15. So the tavern's going to be open Wednesdays again. But their hours are still shorter than they they'd like them to be.
Vickie Chambers owns a hotdog stand called Coupe's Last Stand and also runs the Coupeville Historic Waterfront Association.
She’s been knocking on doors, trying to get a sense of the scale of the problem. She found four out of five businesses on Coupeville’s waterfront are suffering from the worker shortage.
"We've never had this problem before," she said. "So it’s somehow linked to Covid. We’ve never had a hiring problem before this calendar year.”
So her association of businesses is going to host a job fair.
The hope is that they can hire staff quickly enough that the surge in tourism doesn’t leave them behind.
On Friday, in part two of this story, we’ll hear what happened at that job fair, and what it taught us about the complicated obstacles people face in returning to work.
This story was part of our series “The Main Street Project,” which looks at economic recovery one street at a time.